by Pat Staszak, PT
"All diseases begin in the gut."
–Hippocrates (460-377 BC)
Recently, we've been hearing about groundbreaking research on the microbiome — the 100-trillion or so friendly microbes that are living (and dying) right now on your skin, your tongue, and deep in the coils of your intestines. They outnumber human cells by about ten to one.
It is in the gut where their largest contingent resides — a pound or two of microbes that forms its own little wilderness, and that scientists are just now beginning to chart. These microbes affect everything from our digestion, immune system and overall vitality to brain chemistry and behavior.
Did you know that lifestyle, nutrition and stress can affect the overall balance and health of our gut microbes? And this balance (or imbalance) can in turn play a key role in the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis and chronic inflammation? Welcome to part two of our series on osteoarthritis and inflammation! Read on to learn more about what your gut is trying to tell you.
The microbiome performs metabolic functions that humans lack; it can help us digest food, synthesize vitamins, and fight off infection. Your gut health is acquired from your mother at birth, but it’s also influenced by your lifestyle, your food choices, even your medications. It was only fairly recently that scientists began studying these organisms and the ways in which they directly influence various disease processes and body fat percentages.
So let’s take a closer look at why not all bacteria is bad or created equal.
In our gut and throughout our body we have a collection of good bacteria that improves our health and bad bacteria that leads to disease. The bad type interacts with the immune system in the gut to cause the release of inflammatory cytokines and stress steroids often seen in a “fight or flight” stress response. These responses are associated with chronic inflammation and also appear to contribute to an increased sensitivity to pain. We feed bad bacteria by eating refined sugars, processed foods, and animal fats and proteins.
Sometimes called our “normal flora,” good bacteria are the housekeepers of the gut, and without them your gut cannot be healthy. In a healthy body, these beneficial bacteria predominate and control all other microbes. The beneficial bacteria provide a natural barrier and protect us against disease, free radicals, hostile bacteria, parasites, fungi, viruses and toxins that are in our food and drink that we ingest every day. A healthy gut microbiome greatly improves our immune system and controls our hormonal levels, helping us maintain healthy cortisol levels and improved ability to handle stress.
Indeed, poor gut health has been linked to anxiety and depression, functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID), autism, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity and chronic inflammation to name a few. Ongoing research reveals that people with these diseases often have a very different mix of bacteria in their intestines compared to healthier people.
On the bright side, interventions to treat or improve the microbiome are now increasingly used in medicine to improve our health. Probiotics, nutritional overhauls and, believe it or not, fecal transplants from individuals with a healthy flora are being performed to treat chronic intestinal infections. Kind of a reverse colonoscopy, these transplants are 90 percent effective in healing the patient’s gut and eliminating the infection.
How do we get a healthy gut naturally? More and more research shows that eating fiber is integral in creating a healthy gut biome. One investigation discovered that adding more fiber to the diet can trigger a shift from a microbial profile linked to obesity to one correlated with a leaner physique. Fiber-rich, healthy whole foods include beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Even eating a fiber bar has been shown to improve the health of our gut biome!
Other ways to keep the gut healthy are to take a high-quality probiotic: avoid the use of antibiotics, acid blockers and anti-inflammatories; and avoid GMOs. And, believe it or not, play in the dirt! Immersion in nature is a great way expose yourself to healthy bacteria.
In short, if you’re experiencing diseases associated with chronic inflammation, it might be a good idea to listen to your gut. There is so much healing potential in in the foods we eat!
The first two articles in this series have focused on nutrition. Next month, we’ll discuss other powerful research about meditation, yoga and mindfulness as well as the mind-gut connection.